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Networks Freshen Up

As networks age, colleges and universities employ creative strategies to meet demand without draining the IT budget.
University Business, May 2011
Virtualization allows Stevenson U to expand academic programs without network hardware changes.

Call it the marathon without a finish line: As new network demands such as mobile computing and rich media increase, campus IT strategists are trying to keep running ahead, to ensure that their networks can meet the need.

Cloud computing, desktop virtualization, in-house application development, and server provisioning are among the ways institutions are managing to stay in the race. For many educational entities, doing a widespread "rip-and-replace" network upgrade isn't a realistic solution, given how quickly technology can change, and how expensive those revamps can be on IT budgets. Instead, they're working to be creative by upgrading where needed, getting as much off the network as they can, and tracking usage trends in order to anticipate future needs.

"Basically, you just have to stay ahead of it," says Greg Gardner, network communications manager at the Rochester Institute of Technology (N.Y.). "We do continual monitoring, keep good historical statistics, and make changes where we can. It's not always perfect, and sometimes there's some fortune telling and leaps of faith involved, but we're doing our best to make sure we meet demand."

Network monitoring is a tried-and-true strategy for IT departments, and it's especially crucial now for seeing spikes in usage, bandwidth bottlenecks, and the effect of mobile devices on the network. As fresh tactics such as cloud computing or wireless implementation are employed, monitoring helps make sure that network utilization is on track.

Gardner notes that a few years ago, a large wireless project changed the dynamic of RIT's bandwidth. The school also made tweaks in serving up e-mail to students, and watching how changes like that affect the internet backbone has been invaluable in making projections for the future, he says. Vigilant monitoring allows the IT department to upgrade where needed, instead of revamping large parts of the network. "We have a combination of upgraded and older systems," says Gardner. "We try to make sure we target our investments appropriately. Some areas on campus have pretty old equipment, but that's because those are areas where the performance needs aren't too high. We're not going to refresh equipment if we don't have to."

Sometimes, a selective, large-scale upgrade can be beneficial for moving forward. When Reed A. Sheard became the first chief information officer at Westmont College (Calif.) a few years ago, he noticed that the network suffered from instability due to its age. He and the IT team went in and refreshed about 30 percent of the network, by replacing some switches, putting in a redundant router, and performing other basic upgrade tasks. Once that was done, he saw that quite a bit of time was going into maintenance and implementation of different technologies. A decision was made to move core services into the cloud.

One of the largest trends in handling new demands on older networks comes in the form of cloud computing. The strategy allows institutions to send applications, data storage, and other technology demands into a cloud-based environment, usually hosted off-site by a cloud provider. For Westmont, the tactic freed up considerable time for system administrators, who Sheard notes were "spending 99 percent of their time trying to keep the wheels on the wagon." By moving the college's core services, the system administrators could use their time for strategic planning. "As technologists, we can use our heads to innovate, we can think about looking ahead to the future," he says. "You can't do that when you're running around trying to make sure that printers are working, or if people are complaining about the internet being slow."

Hiring could also be kept to current levels, which Sheard says was a major consideration, given the area's high cost of living: "There's no way I could hire someone from, say, Cincinnati, and pay them enough to live here. We can only hire people who are already here, and the demand for technology talent is already high. So, this strategy helped us to work around that big issue."

Westmont moved e-mail, calendars, smartphone synchronization, spam filters, and even wireless infrastructure management to cloud-based controllers using a cloud integration platform from Cast Iron Systems. That minimized the need for servers and proprietary software, and opened up possibilities for utilizing more managed applications. For instance, the college moved to a managed CRM application for keeping track of fundraising.

The cloud-based strategy has only been in place for about a year, but it's already provided "massive cost savings," according to Sheard. In particular, the college no longer has to buy as much storage and manage it through a storage area network. Utilization rates have skyrocketed, too, he adds. In just one year, the school went from 50 iPhones on its wireless network to over 900, with virtually no technical issues.

Other colleges and universities are also feeling cloudy. "We're moving as much as we can to the cloud," says Stephen Campbell, assistant vice president and CIO at Plymouth State University (N.H.). "It's better than trying to host everything ourselves." The cloud approach, however, does have its challenges. Campbell notes that security is an issue, even though there haven't been high-profile incidents of security breaches resulting from cloud usage. Still, he says he's cautious about putting sensitive information into the cloud, as there are no guarantees about where the data will be located.

Another concern comes in the form of adjustment to IT roles. Sheard notes that going to cloud-based management is a paradigm shift that affects the degree of ownership felt by those in the IT department. He's helping those on Westmont's technology team to adjust to the type of mindset shift required. "It's not intuitive to think that our data is safer and more accessible by letting someone else manage it," says Sheard. "We worked through that by looking at performance and security, but it took us a little while."

Virtualization continues to be another popular strategy for meeting new demands without upgrading network infrastructure. At Stevenson University (Md.), for example, the School of Graduate and Professional Studies uses a virtualized environment from VMware to maintain state-of-the-art technology without having to buy network hardware, notes Steven R. Engorn, the university's chief technology strategist. In the past, high-level technology classes involved letting students use six physical servers each, but that required tremendous resources to keep them cooled and stored. Engorn adds that they'd also become outdated quickly, which ran counter to the purpose of teaching students about using cutting-edge technology. By giving students virtual servers, and allowing them to share desktops with each other through virtual desktop technology, the school has been able to boost its educational offerings without revamping any network hardware or related technologies.

Wireles network utilization rates have skyrocketed at Westmont College, but a cloud-based strategy means a huge savings on storage.

"Other schools are doing virtual computer labs, or have virtual desktops, but I felt like we needed to go a step further," says Engorn. "Networking in today's day and age moves very fast, so we had to keep ahead of those changes. Using virtual servers allowed us to do exactly that." Another benefit, he adds, is that virtualization allowed the school to pull resources off the network, which allows IT to better protect the network in general, and create more restrictive access.

"Virtualization and cloud computing are huge," says Bryan Peterson, associate director of technical services enterprise systems and software development at Utah Education Network (UEN), a consortium of public education partners, including the Utah System of Higher Education and its 10 universities and colleges. "In education, many of the IT folks have to stretch their dollars and be innovative, so they end up running their equipment longer than average. With strategies like virtualization and cloud computing, they get more utilization and longer life out of their networks."

In making sure that networks can meet demand, colleges and universities are looking at all aspects of their technologies and trying to find innovative ways to stay ahead without doing too much purchasing. At Plymouth State, for example, there's a strong focus on developing their own applications, and employing Software-as-a-Service. This one-two punch means that IT can grow their own software with internal network specifications in mind, and then use hosted applications for an additional boost. "Sometimes, it's just more cost effective to build an application ourselves," says Campbell. "We look at all the possibilities."

The main IT project involves building web portals, including a community portal that will let local stores and restaurants contribute information about events, sales, and promotions. Another portal gives students the ability to share bills with their parents, or broadcast facts about themselves to other students.

In addition to in-house application development, another creative strategy is to shift e-mail management. At RIT, the technology team did a conversion project in 2009 to transfer all students to Gmail accounts served through Google, rather than give them university-based e-mail accounts. Gardner says, "We did an analysis of what it would mean to switch from internal to external accounts, and we saw nothing but benefits for that approach."

In RIT's initial assessment, the technology team found that a large portion of students were forwarding their university e-mail to Gmail anyway, so the change for those individuals would be minor. Also, Gmail is able to provide very large e-mail storage mailboxes, whereas RIT's e-mail was more limited, in order to minimize a storage crunch on the network.

"If we'd tried to give students the amount of e-mail storage they wanted, it would have been rather expensive," says Gardner. Although the IT department had to give up some control of e-mail management, going with Gmail turned out to meet student need more efficiently—and it took bandwidth pressure off the network.

Another creative strategy is segregating the network, notes William Morse, chief technology officer at the University of Puget Sound (Wash.). Faculty and staff use one network, students use another. The tactic ensures that the former group can get fast access without trying to get through the type of bottlenecks sometimes seen with student bandwidth use.

"Students will always use up as much bandwidth as you provide. They just soak it up, no matter how much you give them," says Morse. "By letting the academic traffic go through first, we make sure access isn't bogged down with traffic that's more recreational."

No matter what the strategy, from e-mail hosting to cloud computing to virtual desktops, colleges and universities are finding ways to meet network demands without busting their budgets with continual upgrades.

Elizabeth Millard is a Minneapolis-based writer who specializes in covering technology.